A week before Kristen Valnicek was set to take the LSAT, she quit studying, dropped the idea of law school and left college. She was finishing up her third year at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. Her parents, both in the medical industry, were supportive yet cautious.
After a month of playing “Counter-Strike,” a first-person shooter game, she felt momentum building around her live-streaming channel on Twitch. She hasn’t looked back since.
These days, Valnicek, 25, is making enough money to hire two agents, a manager and a video editor. Her page, KittyPlays, is the second-most followed female channel on Twitch, a popular video streaming site that Amazon.com bought for $970 million dollars in 2014. (The Lily is part of The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos.)
Twitch started off as a platform to host live-gaming content in 2011, but continues to expand. It now has sections that include creative, cooking, social eating (the phenomenon of watching people eat), and IRL (vlogging). It’s gearing up to be as big–if not bigger–than Youtube.
Twitch says popular streamers can often make a full-time living from subscribers and donations if they hustle hard enough.
Valnicek’s biggest donation in-one-go so far? $8,258.69. Women on Twitch work hard for their followers, subscriptions and overall earnings. The audience of the most-followed woman is just one-third of the most-followed male streamer on Twitch. There’s definitely a gap.
It’s largely hypothesized that there are also fewer female streamers than men, but there aren’t numbers to support that. (Twitch doesn’t ask for this information during signup or account creation.)
- Christine, who didn’t want to share her last name, is 31 and goes by cookingfornoobs. She was working as a tutor and nanny before she switched to doing Twitch full time. Like other career streamers, she streams 20 to 25 hours per week. An additional 20 to 25 hours are spent making a stream schedule, answering emails and planning out her content. As a streamer who focuses on having a family-friendly channel centered on cooking and vlogging, she says she’s now “making way more than [she] was before.”
- Meghan Tobin, 20, goes by sinfullyriddling. She started streaming on October 16, 2015. Midway through her sophomore year at Seton Hall University, she dropped out of school to do Twitch. “I’m interested, career-wise, in doing social media and community management within the gaming industry, and the path that I’m on with my channel is leading me in that direction.”
Internet trolls are everywhere, and everyone is subject to them. But in November 2016, Indiana University published a paper examining whether chat messages addressed to Twitch streamers are gendered or not.
It’s a frustrating experience for women. “A lot of times you are objectified,” says Tobin. “I’ll be wearing a full t-shirt, just trying to play some ‘Skyrim’ and kill some dragons, and somebody’s like, ‘Hey, take off your shirt.’ It’s degrading, it’s disgusting.”
But the streamer says she has ways of dealing with it. “I try to troll the trolls back. I used to have this John Cena cut-out that would sit next to me during a stream, and if someone came in and said something like, ‘You’re sexy,’ I would act like they were talking about the John Cena cut-out. I’d tell them, ‘You shouldn’t talk to John like that. He’s more than just a piece of meat. Have some respect.’”
Twitch has rules implemented ways to curb inappropriate chats. Streamers can choose moderators they trust and enable AutoMod, a tool that uses machine-learning to catch risky messages. There’s also a 24/7 Twitch moderation team that’s tries to catch violators in real-time.
Every woman interviewed for this article had a similar response when asked why they still keep streaming: They do it for the community.
Despite the pressure to be “a modern-day geisha girl,” Valcinek believes Twitch has an incredible, inclusive and loving community.
Valnicek’s newest venture, Team Kitty, is a group of 70 female broadcasters who host each other on channels, organize team charity events, and support one another.
“Our core value is to motivate, inspire and change the discussion about women in gaming. By working together, everyone can benefit. There’s no winner and there’s no loser,” she says.